The director of ‘Nobody Speak’ sees Hulk Hogan v. Gawker as a case of Big Money silencing public debate

By Bliss Bowen

When a Florida jury awarded Terry Gene Bollea $140 million in damages against Gawker Media in March 2016, story headlines trumpeted the outsized award and the sleaziness of the case. Bollea, internationally known as cartoonish wrestler Hulk Hogan, had sued Gawker for publishing a clip from a sex tape of him with the wife of his then best friend (and provider of the tape).

An infamy-inviting website that broke sensational stories about Bill Cosby, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, Gawker was an unsympathetic defendant. When publisher Nick Denton declared bankruptcy and sold the company to Univision, the attitude of many onlookers was “good riddance.”

But as reporters and legal experts explain in filmmaker and Luminant Media owner Brian Knappenberger’s ironically titled new documentary, “Nobody Speak,” the First Amendment ramifications of Bollea v. Gawker are profound. Subtitled “Trials of the Free Press,” the film examines the suit as part of an unsettling trend.

Knappenberger, until recently a Venice resident, previously explored free speech issues in “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” and “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” “Nobody Speak” zeroes in on Big Money’s role in the free speech debate, identifying patterns in Thiel’s secret funding of Bollea’s lawsuit and billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s secret purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal (and LVR-J reporters’ heroic unmasking of their mysterious new employer — a story deserving its own movie). All that occurs as presidential candidate Donald Trump furiously attacks the news media as “dishonest” and, later, targets them as
“the enemy of the people.”

In footage from “Nobody Speak,” Hulk Hogan (above) ignores the press during his defamation suit against Gawker, and Donald Trump berates the press in his successful quest for the presidency

The Argonaut: Community vs. individual rights; freedom of the press vs. privacy; old media vs. new media — it’s almost as surreal as Hulk Hogan being held up as a privacy champion.

Brian Knappenberger: That’s actually one of the reasons why I was so interested in it. The case between Hulk Hogan and Gawker just by itself was so interesting. It sounded so salacious and tabloid-y in the beginning, but it was pretty clear right from the early days that there were big-picture privacy vs. First Amendment issues at stake. I had a fair amount of sympathy for Hogan’s case at that point. But what happened after that was so staggering. … The revelation that Peter Thiel was funding Hogan’s case made this story about something very different: about this ability to, in secret, leverage money to silence voices that were inconvenient.

What do you hope ‘Nobody Speak’ will accomplish?

It’s time for a reinvigoration of the role of the press. Nothing like a common enemy to make you remember why you were there in the first place. The press isn’t the enemy of the people; the press is the people. There’s never been a better time for strong, adversarial, muckraking journalism.

Journalism should not just speak truth to power, but rattle the foundations of power. There isn’t democracy without that check on power, and a well-informed public. A lot of journalism has been decimated because it’s lost a lot of the traditional sources of revenue. That’s particularly true of local newspapers and independent journalism — the kind of journalism we really, really need. The old system is dead and the new one hasn’t been born yet, but this is a moment when, ready or not, it’s time to step up.

Is that how the Gawker judgment’s changed the landscape — making clear there’s no time to waste? Because press outlets have always risked getting sued.

Yeah. If you think about the way money has been involved with newspapers and press in the past, it’s certainly been around for a while. What’s weird, and what I think is new and disturbing here, is the secretive aspects of the way that Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. … Peter Thiel [financed Hogan’s lawsuit] in secret, and he had what was essentially an unlimited amount of money in order to silence a news organization that had offended him for reasons that weren’t immediately clear. He also said that Gawker and Valleywag were bad for the Valley because they ran stories that were critical of Silicon Valley. Well, that’s probably more what this was about.

You’ve said journalists need to call out the lies and “kleptocratic greed” of the Trump administration — and they are getting called out, daily. What about scandal fatigue, and other stories that get crowded out?

We do have to hound him, every single day call out the lies and look for the abuses of power that we’re seeing, and keep after that. But I also think, especially as storytellers, we have to forget about Trump a little bit sometimes and try to find and tell stories that are about what we want the future to be. We are so caught up in this day-to-day cycle that it’s easy to forget that we have actual problems in the world, and those problems need smart people to come up with really good solutions. There’s some building to do.

If journalists need to tell stories defining a way forward, what way forward are you trying to identify with “Nobody Speak”?

I think it’s time for the press to define who they are. … This is a period of reckoning. What is the role of a strong, adversarial press going to be? What is the role of the Fourth Estate? Reporting is the only job specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Journalism is critical and was always thought of as a check on power. The First Amendment is critical. It really goes to the heart of the American experiment.

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” begins streaming on Netflix and opens at the Monica Film Center (1332 2nd St., Santa Monica) on Friday, June 23. Call (310) 478-3836 or visit laemmle.com for theater showtimes.

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